I am creating a new class on ecclesiology for The Masters College online Christian Ministry degree. This is undergraduate course and is intended to introduce students to basic concepts in ecclesiology. Here are some rough draft notes for the introductory lecture on the subject of the church as “the people of God”:
THE PEOPLE OF GOD OVERVIEW
The NT contains a series of images which portray the church as “the people of God”. Sometimes the Scripture expressly calls the church “the people of God”; however, that precise image (“the people of God”) is much more common in the OT than in the NT. Michael Horton explains:
The New Testament typically substitutes ekklesia [church] (from the Hebrew qahal, “assembly” or “gathering”) for “people of God.” Yet this reflects the new thing that God is doing in these last days…In ecclesiological terms, it is a progression from “people of God” (as promise) to ekklesia (as fulfillment). The church is the end-times gathering of the scattered sheep of Israel and the nations under the sovereign care of Yahweh the Good Shepherd. (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 719-720)
The image of the Church as “the people of God” emphasizes: (1) God is the one who calls and forms the new people; and (2) the primary relationship of the people in the Church is their relationship to God: the people in their Church are defined by that relationship, “The people of God.”
Paul S. Minear in Images of the Church in the New Testament writes:
A second misconception stems from the habit of applying the term to all men as men. “People are like that!” We do not often use the word in the plural. By contrast, when the New Testament writers want to refer to all men they speak either of Adam, the representative of man, or they speak of “all the peoples.” Humanity is not visualized as a world-wide census of individuals, but as the separate peoples that, taken together, comprise mankind as a whole. Each people retains its own discrete unity. Therefore, to identify a particular society as the people of God is immediately to set it over against all other peoples. This people and it alone has been constituted in a special way by God’s action, by his taking it for his own possession. Henceforth I can be spoken as his own people. To avoid to misconceptions, then, it is well to take the phrase as a whole and to accent the article and the prepositional phrase: the people of God. (68)
The church is what it is because God has done something: God has created a people for himself, for his glory:
1 Peter 2:9–10 (ESV)
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Christians were seen as a new thing, a new race of people. There was a letter written sometime during the 2nd century A.D. which discusses the belief and lives of the Christians. The unknown begins his letter as follows:
Since I see most excellent Diognetus, that you are extremely interested in learning about the religion of the Christians and are asking very clear and careful questions about them–Specifically, what God do they believe in and how do they worship him, so that they all disregard the world and despise death, neither recognizing those who are considered to be gods by the Greeks, nor observing the superstition of the Jews; what is the nature of the heartfelt love they have for one another; and why has this new race of men away of life come into the world we live in now and not before? (trans. Michael W. Holmes)
To be a Christian is to belong to a new race of people; an identity which supersedes all other identities and allegiances, for our new status is the people of God . That identity will be one that we keep forever. Our citizenship in various countries, for instance, will only last as long as we live. Yet, our heavenly citizenship, as Paul calls it in Philippians 3:20, will last as long as God lives.